L.A. Unified fails to turn out its population base to pass parcel tax

If the nation’s second-largest school system had turned out its parents, employees, their relatives and close friends, a parcel tax on Tuesday’s ballot could have swept to victory.

Instead, support was lukewarm; too many stayed home, and others voted no. The Los Angeles Unified School District claimed 53% of the vote on Measure E, far short of the required two-thirds majority.

And now district officials and parents face other unwelcome numbers. To deal with a $640-million deficit, officials are cutting in half arts programs in elementary schools and eliminating library aides. Already crowded high school classrooms will get more tight. And anticipated layoffs will increase by hundreds.

Measure E sought a $100-per-parcel tax that would have provided $92.5 million annually for four years, easing at least some of the pain from next year’s budget crisis.

In Tuesday’s election, about 305,000 voters — a 16% turnout — cast ballots on the parcel tax. Achieving a two-thirds majority required about 204,000 yes votes.

To reach that threshold, the district hoped to rely on the parents of nearly 618,000 students.

In addition, the district has about 100,000 full and part-time employees. And allied unions, including those representing district employees, account for well over 100,000 voters living within L.A. Unified — and that’s not including spouses, said Joshua Pechthalt, a vice president with United Teachers Los Angeles.

But a lackluster campaign with little advertising could not bring out the desired numbers. And while district officials knew this week’s ballot might be tough, they could not forestall cuts if they waited until the more liberal electorate predicted for the November election.

Past stumbles soured the trust of voter Rafael Pimentel, even though his daughter left another school district to attend Garfield High on the Eastside.

“None of that money trickles down to the schools,” he said.

Unions ultimately raised about $200,000 for a late-starting effort, but Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa typified the campaign’s uninspired performance.

The mayor had worked hard in 2008 for Measure Q, a school construction bond. This time, he didn’t so much as issue a news release heralding his endorsement, even though the funding could have prevented layoffs at schools managed by his education nonprofit.

His tepidness had partly to do with the school district’s decision not to share proceeds from Measure E with independently operated charter schools, said spokeswoman Casey Hernandez.

Besides, she said, there was no bandwagon to jump on: “It didn’t seem as though there was strong support” from anyone involved in the campaign; nor were there “events for him to attend.”

Supporters of Measure E are pondering a stronger bid in the November election. They also vow to push for increased state and federal funding — which could prove to be another political long shot.